Where wealthy Chinese travelers are going during the pandemic

(CNN) – The sandy shores of Sanya. The mountains of Yunnan. Giant pandas sanctuaries in Sichuan.

Wealthy Chinese travelers may not be able to travel overseas easily these days, but there is no shortage of attractive travel destinations in their own backyards.

And it looks like the country is gearing up for another domestic travel boom ahead of Golden Week in October.

After more than a month of restrictions and strict lockdowns to eradicate a Delta variant outbreak, China reported no new local cases of Covid-19 on August 23 for the first time since July.

Before the outbreak – which was the worst in China since 2020 – domestic travel was on the rise.

According to a report by the China Tourism Academy, the industry expects around 4.1 billion domestic trips in 2021, an increase of 42% from 2020. In addition, the academy has budgeted $ 511 billion in revenue from domestic tourism, up 48% year on year. year.

At the same time, an annual survey of high net worth individuals by Chinese research firm Hurun Report found that interest in domestic travel jumped 31% year-over-year and that 44% of people respondents said they plan to increase their travel expenses.

Women of the Bai ethnic group sell goods at a local market in Xizhou, Yunnan province.

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

“Outbound tourism is officially discouraged and return quarantine requirements are onerous,” Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications at Dragon Trail, a China-focused digital marketing agency, told CNN Travel.

“There is also a social pressure and a sense of responsibility that you should not risk others by traveling abroad and potentially bringing the virus with you.”

While international travel remains difficult, wealthy travelers take every opportunity to explore their home country.

“Because China is so big. There are also so many different languages, cultures and foods – different things grow in different regions,” Jolie Howard, CEO of the private jet charter service, told CNN. L ‘TRAVEL based in Hong Kong. To travel. “There is so much variety.”

Choice destinations

According to the Hurun 2021 Report, Sanya – a tropical playground on Hainan Island in southern mainland China – is the most popular destination among wealthy domestic travelers. Often referred to as “China’s Hawaii”, it is full of luxury resorts, many of which are run by international brands.
In second place is Yunnan, a mountainous region home to ancient cities, forests and tea plantations.
In Western media, the third and fourth destinations – Tibet and Xinjiang, respectively – often make headlines, but this is usually for reasons other than tourism.
The United States, along with human rights watch groups and other Western countries, has accused the Chinese government of genocide in Xinjiang and severely restricting freedoms in Tibet. China has denied these claims.
Both destinations remained popular among domestic travelers. Xinjiang, in particular, has seen a surge in visitor numbers after brands like H&M and Nike raised concerns about forced labor earlier this year, according to state tabloid Global Times.
As a travel destination, Tibet has a well-deserved reputation for its breathtaking Himalayan landscapes, ancient monasteries, and delicious cuisine. And Xinjiang Province, China’s westernmost territory, is known for its ancient ties to the Silk Road trade and Uyghur culture.

Meanwhile, Sichuan, famous for its giant panda sanctuaries, national parks, and numb regional cuisine, rounds out the top five.

Why these destinations?

“They are traditionally popular among Chinese travelers, and the rich outdoor resources have made them even more popular among elite travelers,” Mengfan Wang, research director of Dragon Trail in Shanghai, told CNN Travel.

Outdoor experiences and adventure tourism have been key trends in the rebound in domestic tourism, she adds.

“Upscale rural guesthouses have seen double-digit growth, especially in popular destinations such as Moganshan, an area of ​​natural beauty close to Shanghai.”

In the 1980s, Dong Yao-hui was part of the first three-man team to travel the length of the Great Wall of China. Today, he focuses on its preservation.

According to Wendy Min, spokesperson for Trip.com Group, the group has seen an increase in bookings for bucket list destinations like Shanghai Disney, the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Great Wall of China – all offering “easy trips. and practical, great cultural experiences, and top rated accommodations. ”

“We have seen an increase in the number of visitors to places like Guangzhou, Chongqing, Zhuhai, Dunhuang and Quanzhou – a newly listed UNESCO site – is undoubtedly on many travel wish lists,” Min said. at CNN Travel.

Safety remains paramount, along with must-see experiences and attractive landscapes that “lend themselves to great photography”.

By land and by sea

Wealthy Chinese travelers aren’t just choosing their destinations differently, they’re also changing the way they get from point A to point B to point C.

Driving has become the dominant mode of transportation in areas such as Shanghai and Guangdong, Wang explains.

“Many people will also travel to a prominent city (like Shanghai) and then take a self-driving route popular in the southwest and northwest regions of China,” she adds.

On a related note, Wang’s colleague Parulis-Cook says the young and wealthy Chinese have also taken road trips in luxury vehicles, renting upscale motorhomes and glamping in exclusive campgrounds.

This trend is heavily influenced by social media and the ability to take photos while glamping – on the Xiaohongshu social media platform, for example, users pose with Fendi handbags or Hermes blankets at their campsites. “, adds Parulis-Cook.

Meanwhile, boating has become increasingly popular in leisure destinations such as Hainan Island – a long-time favorite among China’s elite thanks to its duty-free shops, sandy beaches and its lush golf courses.

According to data from the Hainan Free Trade Port, the number of newly registered yachts in Sanya in the first half of 2021 increased by 220% year on year.

More travelers fly solo

Private air travel also appears to be following a jetstream.

“We’re seeing a lot of new customers – maybe they weren’t using private jets before Covid-19 because commercial airlines were pretty easy. Now they want to travel privately because it’s safer, faster (in terms of waiting for Covid -19 tests), and you have access to all the different airports, ”explains Howard of L’VOYAGE.

“We have even seen a lot of growth in terms of customers buying their own planes after having chartered a private jet for a while.”

A resort in Sanya, China, won the Guinness World Record for the greatest underwater mermaid show, attended by 100 professional divers.

This pattern, she says, reminds her of the industry’s momentum after the SARS outbreak in 2003.

“At that time, private aviation had a lot of visibility and, again, we are gaining notoriety.”

And while their main clients in China continue to be business travelers, Howard has also observed a shift in travel habits.

“It is often a combination – for example, our clients can go to Sanya for a business meeting and then meet the family for a few days of vacation.”

Longing for deeper experiences

When it comes to purely leisure travel, Howard explains that the company’s customers prefer to explore remote areas – like Yunnan, Tibet or Xinjiang – which require a larger investment of time.

“Before the pandemic, there were international alternatives because people could go abroad. But now we see elite travelers choosing destinations with clean air and beautiful scenery… like the beautiful mountains of the region. Yunnan. ”

“You need more than two or three days in these adventurous places. You need time to explore, hike or have cultural experiences.”

No matter where elite Chinese travelers go, Howard says great food is a key requirement.

“The food element is always very important for our customers because, culturally, the Chinese socialize around the table,” she explains.

“A place like Sichuan is a good example because it offers great food, as well as authentic methods of growing and producing ingredients. So our customers will probably want to visit an organic farm to learn more about the way things are done. are grown, get back to nature and enjoy the fresh air. ”

A bamboo forest in Moganshan, China.

A bamboo forest in Moganshan, China.

Lourens Botha / Alamy

Repressed demand for overseas travel

While wealthy travelers have been busy trekking miles within China’s borders throughout the pandemic, Dragon Trail says there is a lot of pent-up demand for international travel.

Parulis-Cook expects wealthy and experienced travelers to China to return overseas as soon as they feel more secure, manageable and socially acceptable.

“I would say that for wealthy travelers, where travel is part of their way of life, it’s much less about having a new preference for domestic travel,” says Parulis-Cook.

“Rather, the current restrictions make outbound travel unattractive in many ways. It’s not only inconvenient, but it also looks bad and irresponsible.”